Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

01 Jul

The games of Revolution Software bore the stamp of the places in which they were conceived. Work on Beneath a Steel Sky, the company’s breakthrough graphic adventure, began in Hull, a grim postindustrial town in the north of England, and those environs were reflected in the finished product’s labyrinths of polluted streets and shuttered houses. But by the time Revolution turned to the question of a follow-up, they had upped stakes for the stately city of York. “We’re surrounded by history here,” said Revolution co-founder Tony Warriner. “York is a very historical city.” Charles Cecil, Revolution’s chief motivating force in a creative sense, felt inspired to make a very historical game.

The amorphous notion began to take a more concrete form after he broached the idea over dinner one evening to Sean Brennan, his main point of contact at Revolution’s publisher Virgin Interactive. Brennan said that he had recently struggled through Umberto Eco’s infamously difficult postmodern novel Foucault’s Pendulum, an elaborate satire of the conspiratorial view of history which is so carefully executed that its own conspiracy theories wind up becoming more convincing than most good-faith examples of the breed. Chasing a trail of literally and figuratively buried evidence across time and space… it seemed ideal for an adventure game. Why not do something like that? Perhaps the Knights Templar would make a good starting point. Thus was born Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.

Our respectable books of history tell us that the Knights Templar was a rich and powerful but relatively brief-lived chivalric order of the late Middle Ages in Europe. It was founded in 1119 and torn up root and branch by a jealous King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V in 1312. After that, it played no further role in history. Or did it?

People have been claiming for centuries that the order wasn’t really destroyed at all, that it just went underground in one sense or another. Meanwhile other conspiracy theories — sometimes separate from, sometimes conjoined with the aforementioned — have posited that the Knights left a fabulous hidden treasure behind somewhere, which perchance included even the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.

In the 1960s, the old stories were revived and adapted into a form suitable for modern pop culture by a brilliant French fabulist named Pierre Plantard, who went so far as to plant forged documents in his homeland’s Bibliothèque Nationale. Three Anglo authors ingeniously expanded upon his deceptions — whether they were truly taken in by them or merely saw them as a moneymaking opportunity is unclear — in 1982 in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It connected the Knights Templar to another, more blasphemous conspiracy theory: that Jesus Christ had not been celibate as stated in the New Testament, nor had his physical form actually died on the cross. He had rather run away with Mary Magdalene and fathered children with her, creating a secret bloodline that has persisted to the present day. The Knights Templar were formed to guard the holy bloodline, a purpose they continue to fulfill. Charles Cecil freely admits that it was The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that really got his juices flowing.

It isn’t hard to see why. It’s a rare literary beast: a supposedly nonfiction book full of patent nonsense that remains thoroughly entertaining to read even for the person who knows what a load of tosh it all is. In his review of it back in 1982, Anthony Burgess famously wrote that “it is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvelous theme for a novel.” Many others have felt likewise over the years since. If Umberto Eco’s unabashedly intellectual approach doesn’t strike your fancy, you can always turn to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s decidedly more populist take on the theme from 2003 — one of the most successful novels of the 21st century, the founder of a veritable cottage industry of sequels, knock-offs, and cinematic adaptations. (Although Brown himself insists that he didn’t use The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for a crib sheet when writing his novel, pretty much no one believes him.)

For all their convoluted complexity, conspiracy theories are the comfort food of armchair historians. They state that the sweeping tides of history are not the result of diffuse, variegated, and ofttimes unease-inducing social and political impulses, but can instead all be explained by whatever shadowy cabal they happen to be peddling. It’s a clockwork view of history, A leading to B leading to C, which conveniently absolves us and our ancestors who weren’t pulling the strings behind the scenes of any responsibility for the state of the world. I’ve often wondered if the conspiratorial impulse in modern life stems at least in part from our current obsession with granular data, our belief that all things can be understood if we can just collect enough bits and bytes and analyze it all rigorously enough. Such an attitude makes it dangerously easy to assemble the narratives we wish to be true out of coincidental correlations. The amount of data at our fingertips, it seems to me, has outrun our wisdom for making use of it.

But I digress. As Burgess, Eco, and Brown all well recognized, outlandish conspiracy theories can be outrageously entertaining, and are harmless enough if we’re wise enough not to take them seriously. Add Charles Cecil to that list as well: “I was convinced a game set in the modern day with this history that resonated from Medieval times would make a very compelling subject.”

As he began to consider how to make a commercial computer game out of the likes of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Cecil realized that he needed to stay well away from the book’s claims about Jesus Christ; the last thing Revolution Software or Virgin Interactive needed was to become the antichrist in the eyes of scandalized Christians all over the world. So, he settled on a less controversial vision of the Knights Templar, centering on their alleged lost treasure — a scavenger hunt was, after all, always a good fit for an adventure game — and a fairly nondescript conspiracy eager to get their hands on it for a spot of good old world domination for the sake of it.

Cecil and some of his more committed fans have occasionally noted some surface similarities between his game and The Da Vinci Code, which was published seven years later, and hinted that Dan Brown may have been inspired by the game as well as by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In truth, though, the similarities would appear to be quite natural for fictions based on the same source material.

Indeed, I’ve probably already spent more time on the historical backstory of Broken Sword here than it deserves, considering how lightly it skims the surface of the claims broached in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and elsewhere. Suffice to say that the little bit of it that does exist here does a pretty good job of making you feel like you’re on the trail of a mystery ancient and ominous. And that, of course, is all it really needs to do.

In addition to being yet another manifestation of pop-culture conspiracy theorizing, Broken Sword was a sign of the times for the industry that produced it. Adventure games were as big as they would ever get in 1994, the year the project was given the green light by Virgin. Beneath a Steel Sky had gotten good reviews and was performing reasonably well in the marketplace, and Virgin was willing to invest a considerable sum to help Revolution take their next game to the proverbial next level, to compete head to head with Sierra and LucasArts, the titans of American adventure gaming. Broken Sword‘s final production cost would touch £1 million, making it quite probably the most expensive game yet made in Britain.

Having such a sum of money at their disposal transformed Revolution’s way of doing business. Some 50 different people in all contributed to Broken Sword, a five-fold increase over the staff hired for Beneath a Steel Sky. Artist Dave Gibbons, whose distinctive style had done so much to make the previous game stand out from the pack, was not among them, having moved on to other endeavors. But that was perhaps for the best; Gibbons was a comic-book artist, adept at crafting striking static images. Broken Sword, on the other hand, would have lots of motion, would be more of an interactive cartoon than an interactive comic.

To capture that feel, Charles Cecil went to Dublin, Ireland, where the animator Don Bluth ran the studio behind such films as The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Thumbelina. There he met one Eoghan Cahill, who had been working with Bluth for years, and got a hasty education on what separates the amateurs from the professionals in the field. Cecil:

I have to say, I didn’t take layout all that seriously. But he asked me about layout, and I showed him some of the stuff we were working on. And he looked at me and said, “This is not good enough.” I felt rather hurt. He said, “You need to see my stuff and you need to employ me.” So I had a look at his stuff, and it was so beautiful.

I said, “I think I really do need to employ you.” And indeed, he came to work at Revolution as a layout artist.

Although Don Bluth himself had nothing to do with the game, Broken Sword is as marked by the unique sensibility he inculcated in his artists as Beneath a Steel Sky is by that of Dave Gibbons. The opening movie is a bravura sequence by any standard, a tribute not only to the advantages of Super VGA graphics and CD-ROM — Revolution’s days of catering to more limited machines like the Commodore Amiga were now behind them — but to the aesthetic sophistication which Cahill brought to the project. Broken Sword‘s “pixel art,” as the kids call it today, remains mouth-wateringly luscious to look upon, something which most certainly cannot be said of the jaggy 3D productions of the mid-1990s.

The view with which the intro movie begins is a real one from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.

It’s worth dwelling on this movie a bit, for it does much to illustrate how quickly both Revolution and the industry to which they belonged were learning and expanding their horizons. Consider the stirring score by the noted film, television, and theater composer and conductor Barrington Pheloung, which is played by a real orchestra on real instruments — a growing trend in games in general at the time, which would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier for both technical and budgetary reasons.

Then, too, consider the subtle sophistication of the storytelling techniques that are employed here, from the first foreshadowing voice-over — the only dialog in the whole sequence — to the literal bang that finishes it. Right after the movie ends, you take control amidst the chaos on the sidewalk that follows the explosion. Assuming you aren’t made of the same stuff as that Notre Dame gargoyle, you’re already thoroughly invested at this point in figuring out what the heck just happened. The power of an in medias res opening like this one to hook an audience was well known to William Shakespeare, but has tended to elude many game developers. Charles Cecil:

There are two ways to start a game. You can give lots of background about a character and what he or she is doing or you can start in a way that is [in] the player’s control, and that’s what I wanted. I thought that since the player controlled the character and associated with him, I could afford to start a game without giving away a great deal about the character. So in the first scene, I didn’t want a long exposition. George is drawn into the plot unwillingly, having been caught up in an explosion, and he wants to do the right thing in finding out what was behind it.

All told, the jump in the quality of storytelling and writing from Beneath a Steel Sky to Broken Sword is as pronounced as the audiovisual leap. Beneath a Steel Sky isn’t really a poorly written game in comparison to others of its era, but the script at times struggles to live up to Dave Gibbons’s artwork. It bears the telltale signs of a writer not quite in control of his own material, shifting tones too jarringly and lapsing occasionally into awkward self-referential humor when it ought to be playing it straight.

None of that is the case with Broken Sword. This game’s writers know exactly where they want to go and have the courage of their conviction that they can get there. This is not to say that it’s dour — far from it; one of the greatest charms of the game is that it never takes itself too seriously, never forgets that it is at bottom just an exercise in escapist entertainment.

Remarkably, the improvement in this area isn’t so much a credit to new personnel as to the usual suspects honing their craft. Revolution’s games were always the vision of Charles Cecil, but, as he admits, he’s “not the world’s greatest writer.” Therefore he had relied since the founding of Revolution on one Dave Cummins to turn his broad outlines into a finished script. For Broken Sword, Cummins was augmented by a newcomer named Jonathan Howard, but the improvement in the writing cannot be down to his presence alone. The veterans at Revolution may have become harder to spot amidst the sea of new faces, but they were working as hard as anyone to improve, studying how film and television were put together and then applying the lessons to the game — but sparingly and carefully, mind you. Cecil:

When Broken Sword came out, we were riding on the back of these interactive movies. They were a disaster. The people knocking them out were being blinded; they wanted to rub shoulders with movie stars and producers, and the gaming elements were lost. They were out of touch with games. Of course, I am interested in film script-writing and I felt then and still do that there can be parallels with games. I felt we needed to learn from the movies with Broken Sword, but not mimic them. It was my intention to make Broken Sword cinematic — with great gameplay.

Revolution may have had global ambitions for Broken Sword, but it’s a deeply British game at heart, shot through with sly British humor. To properly appreciate any of that, however, we really need to know what the game is actually about, beyond the Knights Templar and international conspiracies of evil in the abstract.

Broken Sword‘s protagonist is an American abroad with the pitch-perfect name of George Stobbart, who is winningly portrayed in the original game and all four of its official sequels to date by voice actor Rolf Saxon. George is a painfully earnest everyman — or at least every-American — who in an earlier era might have been played on the silver screen by Jimmy Stewart. He wanders through the game’s foreign settings safely ensconced in the impenetrable armor of his nationality, a sight recognizable to any observer of Americans outside their natural habitat. To my mind the funniest line in the entire script comes when he’s accosted by an overzealous French police constable brandishing a pistol. “Don’t shoot!” he yells. “I’m an American!” Whole volumes of sociology and history could be written by way of unpacking those five words…

Anyway, as we saw in the movie above, the vacationing George is sitting in a Parisian café when a killer clown bombs the place to smithereens, in what seems to have been a deliberate — and unfortunately successful — act of murder against one particular patron. Earnest fellow that he is, George takes it upon himself to solve the crime, which proves to be much more than a random act of street violence. As he slowly peels the onion of the conspiracy behind it all, he has occasion to visit Ireland, Syria, Spain, and Scotland in addition to roaming the length and breadth of Paris, the home base for his investigations. And why does Paris feature so prominently? Well, it was close enough to Britain to make it easy for Revolution to visit in the name of research, but still held a powerful romantic allure for an Englishman of Cecil’s generation. “England was very poor in the 1960s and 1970s, and London was gray and drab,” he says. “Paris was smart. People walked differently and they wore brighter clothes. You sat in restaurants and ate amazing food. The mythology of Paris [in] Broken Sword came from that imagery of my younger days.”

George’s companion — constantly in research, from time to time in adventure, and potentially in romance — is one Nico, a French reporter with a sandpaper wit whom he meets at the scene of the bombing. She was originally created by the game’s writers to serve a very practical purpose, a trick that television and movie scriptwriters have been employing forever: in acting as a diegetic sounding board for George, she becomes a handy way to keep the player oriented and up to date with the ramifications of his latest discoveries, helping the player to keep a handle on what becomes a very complex mystery. In this sense, then, her presence is another sign of how Revolution’s writers were mastering their craft. “It meant we didn’t need to have lengthy one-man dialogs or 30 minutes of cut scenes,” says Charles Cecil.

The sexual tension between the oft-bickering pair — that classic “will they or won’t they?” dilemma — was initially a secondary consideration. It’s actually fairly understated in this first game, even as Nico herself is less prominent than she would later become; she spends the bulk of the game sitting in her apartment conducting vaguely defined “inquiries,” apparently by telephone, and waiting for another visit from George. [1]It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.

So much for the characters. Now, back to the subject of humor:

There’s the time when George tells Nico that he’s just visited the costume shop whence he believes the bomber to have rented his clown suit. “Yeah, I like it. What are you supposed to be?” she asks. Da-dum-dum!

“I didn’t hire a costume,” answers our terminally earnest protagonist. “These are my clothes and you know it.”

And then there’s Nico and (a jealous) George’s discussion with a French historian about Britain’s status during the time of the Roman Empire. “To the Romans, the Mediterranean was the center of the universe,” says the historian. “Britain was a remote, unfriendly place inhabited by blue-painted savages.”

“It hasn’t changed much,” says Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum!

“Well, they’ve stopped painting themselves blue,” says our straight man George.

“Except when they go to a football match,” deadpans Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum-dum!

You get the idea. I should say that all of this is made funnier by the performances of the voice cast, who are clearly having a grand old time turning their accents up to eleven. (Like so many Anglosphere productions, Broken Sword seems to think that everyone speaks English all the time, just in funny ways and with a light salting of words like bonjour and merci.)

And yet — and this is the truly remarkable part — the campiness of it all never entirely overwhelms the plot. The game is capable of creating real dramatic tension and a palpable sense of danger from time to time. It demands to be taken seriously at such junctures; while you can’t lock yourself out of victory without knowing it, you can die. The game walks a tenuous tightrope indeed between drama and comedy, but it very seldom loses its balance.

It wasn’t easy being a writer of geopolitical thrillers in the 1990s, that period of blissful peace and prosperity in the West after the end of the Cold War and before the War on Terror, the resurgence of authoritarianism, a global pandemic, and a widespread understanding of the magnitude of the crisis of global warming. Where exactly was one to find apocalyptic conflicts in such a milieu? It’s almost chilling to watch this clip today. What seemed an example of typically absurd videogame evil in 1996 feels disturbingly relevant today — not the Knights Templar nonsense, that is, but all the real-world problems that are blamed on it. If only it was as simple as stamping out a single cabal of occultists…

It’s hard to reconcile Broken Sword‘s Syria, a place where horror exists only in the form of Knights Templar assassins, a peddler of dodgy kebobs, and — most horrifying of all — an American tourist in sandals and knee socks, with the reality of the country of today. The civil war that is now being fought there has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and shattered tens of millions more.

With Nico in her Parisian flat.

Wars and governments may come and go, but the pub life of Ireland is eternal.

A villa in Spain with a connection to the Knights Templar and a grouchy gardener whom George will need to outwit.

Amidst ruins of a Scottish castle fit for a work of Romantic art, on the cusp of foiling the conspirators’ nefarious plot.

Revolution spent an inordinate amount of time — fully two and a half years — honing their shot at the adventure-game big leagues. They were silent for so long that some in the British press consigned them to the “where are they now?” file. “Whatever happened to Revolution Software?” asked PC Zone magazine in January of 1996. “Two releases down the line, they seem to have vanished.”

Alas, by the time Broken Sword was finally ready to go in the fall of 1996, the public’s ardor for the adventure genre had begun to dissipate. Despite a slew of high-profile, ambitious releases, 1996 had yet to produce a million-selling hit like the previous year’s Phantasmagoria, or like Myst the year before that. Especially in the United States, the industry’s focus was shifting to 3D action-oriented games, which not only sold better but were cheaper and faster to make than adventure games. In what some might call a sad commentary on the times, Virgin’s American arm insisted that the name of Broken Sword be changed to Circle of Blood. “They wanted it to be much more ‘bloody’ sounding,” says Charles Cecil.

For all of its high production values, the game was widely perceived by the American gaming press as a second-tier entry in a crowded field plagued by flagging enthusiasm. Computer Gaming World‘s review reads as a more reserved endorsement than the final rating of four stars out of five might imply. “The lengthy conversations often drag on before getting to the point,” wrote the author. If you had told her that Broken Sword — or rather Circle of Blood, as she knew it — would still be seeing sequels published in the second decade after such adventure standard bearers as King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight had been consigned to the videogame history books, she would surely have been shocked to say the least.

Ah, yes, Gabriel Knight… the review refers several times to that other series of adventure games masterminded by Sierra’s Jane Jensen. Even today, Gabriel Knight still seems to be the elephant in the room whenever anyone talks about Broken Sword. And on the surface, there really are a lot of similarities between the two. Both present plots that are, for all their absurdity, extrapolations on real history; both are very interested in inculcating a sense of place in their players; both feature a male protagonist and a female sidekick who develop feelings for one another despite their constant bickering, and whose rapport their audience developed feelings for to such an extent that they encouraged the developers to make the sidekick into a full-fledged co-star. According to one line of argument in adventure-game fandom, Broken Sword is a thinly disguised knock-off of Gabriel Knight. (The first game of Sierra’s series was released back in 1993, giving Revolution plenty of time to digest it and copy it.) Many will tell you that the imitation is self-evidently shallower and sillier than its richer inspiration.

But it seems to me that this argument is unfair, or at least incomplete. To begin with, the whole comparison feels more apt if you’ve only read about the games in question than if you’ve actually played them. Leaving aside the fraught and ultimately irrelevant question of influence — for the record, Charles Cecil and others from Revolution do not cite Gabriel Knight as a significant influence — there is a difference in craft that needs to be acknowledged. The Gabriel Knight games are fascinating to me not so much for what they achieve as for what they attempt. They positively scream out for critical clichés about reaches exceeding grasps; they’re desperate to elevate the art of interactive storytelling to some sort of adult respectability, but they never quite figure out how to do that while also being playable, soluble adventure games.

Broken Sword aims lower, yes, but hits its mark dead-center. From beginning to end, it oozes attention to the details of good game design. “We had to be very careful, and so we went through lots of [puzzles], seeing which ones would be fun,” says Charles Cecil. “These drive the story on, providing rewards as the player goes along, so we had to get them right.” One seldom hears similar anecdotes from the people who worked on Sierra’s games.

This, then, is the one aspect of Broken Sword I haven’t yet discussed: it’s a superb example of classic adventure design. Its puzzles are tricky at times, but never unclued, never random, evincing a respect for its player that was too often lost amidst the high concepts of games like Gabriel Knight.

Of course, if you dislike traditional adventure games on principle, Broken Sword will not change your mind. As an almost defiantly traditionalist creation, it resolves none of the fundamental issues with the genre that infuriate so many. The puzzles it sets in front of you seldom have much to do with the mystery you’re supposed to be unraveling. In the midst of attempting to foil a conspiracy of world domination, you’ll expend most of your brainpower on such pressing tasks as luring an ornery goat out of an Irish farmer’s field and scouring a Syrian village for a kebob seller’s lucky toilet brush. (Don’t ask!) Needless to say, most of the solutions George comes up with are, although typical of an adventure game, ridiculous, illegal, and/or immoral in any other context. The only way to play them is for laughs.

And this, I think, is what Broken Sword understands about the genre that Gabriel Knight does not. The latter’s puzzles are equally ridiculous (and too often less soluble), but the game tries to play it straight, creating cognitive dissonances all over the place. Broken Sword, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to lean into the limitations of its chosen genre and turn them into opportunities — opportunities, that is, to just be funny. Having made that concession, if concession it be, it finds that it can still keep its overarching plot from degenerating into farce. It’s a pragmatic compromise that works.

I like to think that the wisdom of its approach has been more appreciated in recent years, as even the more hardcore among us have become somewhat less insistent on adventure games as deathless interactive art and more willing to just enjoy them for what they are. Broken Sword may have been old-school even when it was a brand-new game, but it’s no musty artifact today. It remains as charming, colorful, and entertaining as ever, an example of a game whose reach is precisely calibrated to its grasp.

(Sources: the books The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln and Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Retro Gamer 31, 63, 146, and 148; PC Zone of January 1996; Computer Gaming World of February 1997. Online sources include Charles Cecil’s interviews with Anthony Lacey of Dining with Strangers, John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun, Marty Mulrooney of Alternative Magazine Online, and Peter Rootham-Smith of Game Boomers.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars is available for digital purchase as a “director’s cut” whose additions and modifications are of dubious benefit. Luckily, the download includes the original game, which is well worth the purchase price in itself.)


1 It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.

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58 Responses to Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

  1. Marco

    July 1, 2022 at 5:12 pm

    This. This is why I love adventure games. Shadow of the Templars is one of the crown jewels of that all-too-brief period, literally two or three years in terms of release dates, when the technology was just in the right place and the budgets were aligned to get the best people working on them. Unlike the games of 1983 or 1993 they could make the graphics and sound truly immersive, with a simple enough interface that the player could actually start to suspend disbelief in the puzzles, as opposed to “oh – you were supposed to PUSH the pork barrel with the ostrich feather, not USE one on the other”. And unlike the games of 2003 and later, they weren’t one person’s kooky graphic novel turned into a slideshow in blocky 3D.

    Something I think Shadow of the Templars does especially brilliantly is creating totally different atmospheres for the different locations. It’s obvious in the pictures above, though Barrington Pheloung’s music is also a big part of it. (He wrote the music for Inspector Morse, a TV series that was huge in Britain at the time and still remembered fondly.) Even though the game isn’t actually super-long, it gives the impression of being an epic quest: when you go from Paris to Ireland, then on to Spain and Syria, it’s one click on the screen but you almost mentally fill in the long journey, with flights and taxis and booking into cheap hotels.

  2. Sarah Walker

    July 1, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    Not sure if it spoils the 1996 narrative, but Wikipedia claims that Broken Sword did sell over 1 million copies. In a sign of the times though, around half of those were of the Playstation conversion.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 1, 2022 at 7:11 pm

      There are two stories from Charles Cecil that don’t quite add up in this respect. One says that Broken Sword was a big hit right out of the gate, while the other admits that Virgin was very reluctant to fund a sequel, and agreed to do so only at a sharply reduced budget and development time. The latter has more truthiness about it than the former in my view. ;)

      I suspect that Broken Sword made money in the end, but most of it came from Europe and the PlayStation (where half a million copies was almost a floor for any game with reasonably good distribution). And I do wonder how many of those million copies mentioned in a 2001 press release — the only hard source I’ve found for that Wikipedia claim — were the budget re-release. I don’t believe it sold so many copies at all in first release for PCs in the United States. Certainly it was never discussed there as representing any sign of hope for the moribund adventure genre — just when the industry was eagerly looking for just such a thing.

      • Jarno

        July 1, 2022 at 11:32 pm

        There’s quite an informative “Revolution 25th Anniversary Documentary” on Steam.

        In the documentary, Sean Brennan talked about the sequel:
        “It was difficult for us because we were at Virgin going through a very difficult stage there from a corporate perspective. Though there were elements in the company that didn’t want to commission the second game. So, certain elements in North America and elsewhere though ‘Well, is this really what we want to be doing?”. Which we thought was crazy and in the end we got our way and signed the second game, because, the first one, it was a critical success and it was a commercial success.” 

        • Sarah Walker

          July 2, 2022 at 8:42 am

          I had to remind myself where Virgin was at this point in time. Late 96 / early 97 (presumably when the sequel negotiations were taking place) would be about the time Viacom/Spelling decided to sell Virgin as they’d lost a good few million in 95/96 – I imagine Toonstruck contributed quite a bit to this.

      • tony warriner

        July 3, 2022 at 11:24 am

        >Virgin was very reluctant to fund a sequel, and agreed to do so only at a sharply reduced budget and development time.

        A decision made 6 months before BS1 released and by incoming new ‘management types’…

        • Alec Chalmers

          July 4, 2022 at 8:00 pm

          Mr Tony Warriner himself! I think I speak for many people when I say thank you for making such an amazing game. It was THE game of my childhood, along with the sequel.

          • tony warriner

            July 7, 2022 at 9:47 am

            Well, thank you for loving our game. It was all about the players, for us.

        • Alianora La Canta

          August 11, 2022 at 5:35 pm

          And this is why it’s unwise to commit to not spending money on income items before establishing a ballpark figure of how much return is likely. Virgin was definitely on the wrong side of history on that one.

          Thank you for taking up the challenge regardless, and giving us plenty of adventures to explore.

      • Alianora La Canta

        August 11, 2022 at 5:33 pm

        Another part of the puzzle: depending on when exactly the million figure was produced, the iOS releases of Broken Sword remake and Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror (i.e. Broken Sword 4), between them, apparently sold half-a-million units. It’s hard to fudge the sales figures from app stores, and logically one would expect the original to be at least half of that total because few people buy sequels to adventures without also buying the preceding entries if they can find them for their preferred platform.

        So if 500,000 came from the Playstation port, and 250,000+ came from the iOS, that only leaves (at most) 250,000 to have come from PCs, potentially from a very long period of time (Wikipedia quotes from that famous source, “Citation Needed”).

        If the million source came from, say, the mid-2010s (which is possible), it would explain a lot.

        Furthermore, a big hit in the UK wouldn’t necessarily be a big hit Stateside, especially if “British humour” is a significant component of the charm (as here). Given that in the 1990s in particular, the USA formed by far the biggest market overall for computer games, and also given that many trends hit the UK 3 years after the USA, it’s possible Virgin may have considered that the UK was simply in the USA’s 1994 and that by the time a sequel came out, the UK would be in the equivalent of the USA’s 1996/1997 (i.e. not wanting to buy expensively-made adventures any more and thus only worth a smaller risk – and that because the team had undeniably produced an excellent game that people liked playing).

    • Playstation Nation

      December 15, 2022 at 8:13 pm

      A fellow Playstation fan, perhaps?

  3. Alex

    July 1, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    I actually beat the game the first time on a playstation that a friend had borrowed me back in the late 90s. It never bothered me at all that I had to control it with the gamepad, as just one puzzle was based on timing (Catching the old goat in the Irish castle) It was a real joy – not just because of the graphic and the sound. The characters, the setting and the story were so mature in comparison to all the adventure games I played before. I managed to find my own copy for the pc and beat it all over again. Since I lost interest in the genre post the new millienium, it´s still the most mature adventure I´ve ever played, I think. And actually one of the most memorable. The last time I beat it was just about a year ago – it aged just fine. On a downside, I was all over the moon when I found the sequel (The Smoking mirror) last year on steam, but the magic was totally gone. I gave up just a few hours in.

    • Marco

      July 7, 2022 at 1:51 pm

      The goat puzzle is notorious for that reason: it’s not difficult as such, but unlike every other puzzle in the game it’s based on timing and dexterity, so many players were thrown by it. The Director’s Cut version made it easier, but fans like me thought that a cop-out.

      Smoking Mirror is indeed much weaker: the plot was a lot thinner, and they tried to paper over that with crass humour – literally fart jokes, which had no place within the restrained chic of the first game. Indeed, none of the sequels live up to Shadow of the Templars, although I have a soft spot for Sleeping Dragon (the third game), which is probably my favourite full-3D adventure game.

      • Metz O'Magic

        July 26, 2022 at 9:35 pm

        Except for all the crate-pushing puzzles, which became very tedious. Another nit I had with The Sleeping Dragon was… although the constantly changing camera angles as you walked through a scene were very cinematic, they made running away from danger or trying to sneak very difficult because the camera view could suddenly shift from behind the character to in front of the character, making you instinctively want to run back into danger.

  4. Jaina

    July 1, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    Typo time “Add Charles Ceil to that list as well”

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 1, 2022 at 7:17 pm


  5. Mike

    July 1, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    It might be different in the original, but as I recall George’s line with the police constable is, on having a pistol aimed at him, “I’m innocent, I’m an American!”, to which the constable replies “Can’t make up your mind, eh?” It’s a cracking gag, perfectly delivered.

  6. Arthur

    July 1, 2022 at 9:30 pm

    I put my own thoughts on Broken Sword here, but for the most part I agree with you: I think it’s mildly unfair to criticise the first game as a Gabriel Knight ripoff because the first Gabriel Knight has this atmosphere of Southern Gothic horror, whereas the Broken Sword games have always traded more in this sort of Tintin-esque jolly adventure stuff.

    Actually, come to think of it I suspect the second two Gabriel Knight games may have ended up not helping here, because they both involve much more in the way of European locations specifically (as well as having the protagonists be more of a double act). Parallel evolution surely in the case of GK2 – it came out in 1995, at a point when Revolution were no doubt deep into grinding out Broken Sword 1 – but the French setting and parallel inspirations of GK3 make it the best Broken Sword game Sierra ever made…

  7. Andrew McCarthy

    July 2, 2022 at 12:05 am

    Speaking of Gabriel Knight, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that the third game in the series is much more explicitly based on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail than the first Broken Sword is, even to the point of the book appearing in an unused shop window in the game’s texture files.

    I’ve only played the first two Broken Sword games (in their original versions), and while I generally liked them, I found the writing painful at times. In particular, it felt like Revolution had great difficulty writing an American lead character who actually *sounded* American, rather than like somebody born and bred within that “green and pleasant land” of England.

    A few of the other characters also irritated me at times, particularly in the Irish section (where a man who refuses to listen when George tells him his nephew is in mortal danger stands out as head-bangingly moronic). I think they actually trimmed some dialogue lines in that section in the remastered version, so I guess I’m not the only one who thought the writing was dodgy in places.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 2, 2022 at 7:19 am

      I do want to do something larger with the inspirations of Broken Sword II and Gabriel Knight III. It’s just such a great story, how all these conspiracy theories came to be — a lot more interesting than the conspiracy theories themselves, if you ask me. But, because Gabriel Knight III engages with it all in a much more in-depth way, I thought I’d reserve a full-fledged digression for then (he says, to groans from some members of the audience).

      • Edward

        July 7, 2022 at 6:57 am

        I couldn’t hear your groans for the moustache made of cat hair..

      • Metz O'Magic

        July 26, 2022 at 9:48 pm

        Looking forward to that one, Jimmy. Despite it’s… controversial ending, GK III is my second favourite adventure game of all time, largely due to it’s main, overarching puzzle.

        I did happen to read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail long before I played any of these games, in the mid-80’s soon after it was published. Needless to say, themes were borrowed.

    • John

      July 2, 2022 at 7:23 pm

      “In particular, it felt like Revolution had great difficulty writing an American lead character who actually *sounded* American, rather than like somebody born and bred within that “green and pleasant land” of England.”

      I haven’t played the game, but I think I get what you mean. Even some of the bits Jimmy quoted sound off. Americans *rent* things rather than hire them. (Americans hire *people*. See, for example, “. . . a five-fold increase over the staff hired for Beneath a Steel Sky.”) It’s pretty unlikely that an American speaking in English would say “I didn’t hire a costume”. I suppose you could assume that he’s speaking French to Nico and that the French has been translated into British English for the benefit of a presumed British audience, but, even so, it sounds distinctly odd to American ears.

      • CdrJameson

        July 2, 2022 at 11:09 pm

        In the UK we’d also up sticks not stakes, and go for a Kebab not a Kebob.

        (Not relevant here, but I find it funny that we might pay the bill with a cheque, where an American might pay the cheque with a bill).

        From what I remember of the time, the templars were the #1 go-to conspiracy theory to the point of cliché and Gabriel Knight wasn’t that well known in the UK.

      • Ross

        July 5, 2022 at 5:42 pm

        There’s a handful of SPECIFIC idioms in American usage where we’d use “hire” instead of “rent”. A tuxedo is one of them . But I think even these have become noticably less common over the past couple of decades.

        • Lisa H.

          July 5, 2022 at 6:33 pm

          I’ve always said/heard “rent a tuxedo”…

  8. Andrew Pam

    July 2, 2022 at 2:28 am

    “the similarities would appear to be either quite natural” – is “either” a stray word here?

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 2, 2022 at 7:20 am

      Yes. Thanks!

  9. Aula

    July 2, 2022 at 6:20 am

    “in any other than context” probably shouldn’t have that “than” in there.

    Also, aren’t you going to post a list of the games and other topics from 1996 you intend to cover? While that’s a relatively recent feature of this blog (you only started doing those with 1993 IIRC) I think you should keep doing them. For one thing, just having a post with a year in its title makes the Table of Contents more useful. For another, I really like to have some idea about what I can expect to read about in the future. For third, the comment sections of the previous overview posts have been very interesting, highlighting games that might otherwise never get mentioned at all.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 2, 2022 at 7:26 am


      The good news is that there will be a “state of the blog” post coming before the next proper article, along with ebooks from the previous historical year, etc. The bad news is that it will come in two weeks *instead* of a proper article. I’m going to take a bit of time to celebrate my 50th birthday, so things will be pushed back one week.

      • Jaina

        July 2, 2022 at 8:45 am

        Happy birthday!

        So I’m just kind of rambling thoughts here. Bottom line is I’ve always loved the blog and will continue to do so. I do however find my attention waning during really long series of articles… Delphi and the web around the world, China. I was an, and continue to be an advocate for the analog series, but something about the long series of themed posts makes me stop in the middle and then come back to read the next half dozen once the series is complete. 5 months with the web series while also being deeply immersed in the China ones definitely strained my poor attention span.

        Anyway, just my opinion about something I’ve noticed before. I really don’t have a point unfortunately, lol. Thank you for all your hard work on something that makes my Fridays extra great.

        • Brian Bagnall

          July 7, 2022 at 4:11 pm

          I also put off reading the Internet articles though I will get back to them eventually. I guess I come here when I’m in the mood for reading about retro games. Looks interesting though and I’m sure Jimmy did a smashing job of summarizing the period. I look forward to taking them in all at one go.

      • Brian

        July 5, 2022 at 10:56 am

        Yes! Happy Birthday… approaching that milestone myself…

      • Brian Bagnall

        July 7, 2022 at 4:08 pm

        Happy Birthday Jimmy! I’m also reaching the same milestone later this year. God we’re old!

  10. Guillaume

    July 2, 2022 at 10:37 am

    @Jaina : I’m having the same problem with long series here (and anywhere, I think).

    Maybe I should wait for them to be finished first. but there’s also the point I’m not coming there for this kind of posts (which does not mean they should not exists), even if their subjects are interesting in theory.

    Happy birthday too !

  11. Fredrik Arnerup

    July 2, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    That is some hideous cover art though, at least for us with colour vision.

    • Mayhaym

      July 3, 2022 at 6:51 pm

      This cover art just oozes (late) 90s edginess though – although I agree it doesn’t look all that great now.

  12. Dandy

    July 3, 2022 at 9:24 am

    I hugely enjoyed reading this blog about one of my favourite games. I’m a French citizen and played the French dub of Broken Sword as a child in the 90’s. When Steam released the director’s cut in 2010, I bought it hoping for some nostalgia. By then I was living in the UK and so I (accidentally or not) played the game in the original English dub and I could not get used to Nico’s accent! I found it too stereotypical and a little grating. Maybe Nico being merely a sounding board / female love interest (in the first game at least) made it worse. But mostly likely it’s because she fitted some romantic or one dimensional idea of a French / Parisian woman which I understand even more now that I’ve read more about Cecil’s motivation to set the game in Paris. I’m probably biased because I know her as a French speaker (who I think sounds great with the right amount of deadpan wit and understated glee from making fun of George.)

    Having Nico’s nationality built in her character by way of accent doesn’t work well for me. With George it does: it tells a story of him trying to enjoy his holiday and ending up a victim of an explosion whose life will be turned upside down in a foreign country. But Nico? I really appreciate you pointing out that ‘Like so many Anglosphere productions, Broken Sword seems to think that everyone speaks English all the time, just in funny ways and with a light salting of words like bonjour and merci.)’ I don’t know if it’s limited to the Anglosphere though.

    French speaking Nico also makes more sense since the game is partially set in France. That being said, George spoke French with an American accent to other English speakers and it never struck me as odd (which is an interesting insight into dubbed media, bias and language.)

    I had a similar experience playing A Plague’s Tale on PS5. It is set in France and the characters are dubbed by English speakers putting on French accents (no offense to their acting skills it’s a good dub.) Thankfully there’s an option to put the original French dub on with English subtitles (although the subtitles aren’t very readable which can be an access issue.)

    Interestingly though George is dubbed by a French actor..! I always thought he was dubbed by a French speaking American national growing up..! The truth is accents in fiction are a characteristic, but accents in real life are commonplace and don’t necessarily mean anything. Characters who have accents but whose character is not defined by that accent (and what it means about them) are rarer.

    I thought broken sword 2 was great too and in fact it’s the first one I played on a PlayStation magazine demo (although some elements, notably the portrayal of South American characters, hasn’t aged well.) Nico does get more of a role in BS2 and we can play her, which was so exciting back then. I also remember getting the director’s cut on DS and playing without the voice acting was strange (and the Nico sections were a little underwhelming.) I have actually never played Beneath a Steel sky and will look into it.

    • Petter Sjölund

      July 5, 2022 at 8:41 am

      I played Broken Sword right after finishing The Last Express, which handles different accents and languages masterfully, and the contrast could not be more stark. Pretty much every dialogue in Broken Sword has an actor doing a terrible accent or an adult trying to sound like a child. It might have been sufferable if the game had been pure comedy, or if the writing had been great, but alas it is not.

  13. Richard

    July 3, 2022 at 8:01 pm

    How do the puzzles compare with Beneath a Steel Sky?

  14. Martin

    July 4, 2022 at 2:18 am

    > I’ve often wondered if the conspiratorial impulse in modern life stems at least in part from our current obsession with granular data, our belief that all things can be understood if we can just collect enough bits and bytes and analyze it all rigorously enough.

    Yes. Iain McGilchrist would characterize this as left-brain thinking (linear, analytical, abstract, logical, clockwork) vs. right-brain thinking (holistic, experiential, amenable to metaphor and uncertainty). His thesis is that western culture has swung back and forth a few times over the past millenia, and is now left-brain-dominant, much to the detriment of our own well-being.

    His book is called Master and his Emissary. It’s brilliant, but I’m loathe to recommend it because it’s rather poorly written and therefore very difficult.

  15. Martin

    July 4, 2022 at 2:18 am

    > The first game of Serra’s series


    • Jimmy Maher

      July 4, 2022 at 5:39 am


  16. declain

    July 4, 2022 at 10:05 am

    > For all their convoluted complexity, conspiracy theories are the comfort food of armchair historians. They state that the sweeping tides of history are not the result of diffuse, variegated, and ofttimes unease-inducing social and political impulses, but can instead all be explained by whatever shadowy cabal they happen to be peddling.

    Alan Moore came to the same conclusion:
    “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory.

    The truth is far more frightening – Nobody is in control.

    The world is rudderless.”

  17. Leo Vellès

    July 4, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    I’m surprised you didn`t said something about that infamous goat puzzle. I think it’s design felt very unnatural, because it is the only one that rely on that mechanic. Back in the day, when there were no walkthroughs at one single click of distance, i remember being stumped with that puzzle for a long time, and I believe many more people were too.

    • Guille Crespi

      July 5, 2022 at 3:44 pm

      My thoughts exactly! That puzzle is so infamous that it even has its own Wikipedia page

      • Jimmy Maher

        July 5, 2022 at 3:59 pm

        Interesting. I had no idea of its reputation. I remember that it took me some time, but I’m sure I eventually solved it on my own — albeit not without a lot of experimentation. My instinct is to call it somewhat difficult, but not really unfair. (I did take a couple of hints when playing Broken Sword, but they were elsewhere. For some reason I had a lot of trouble with the Syrian section and that business with the kebob seller’s toilet brush…)

      • Lisa H.

        July 5, 2022 at 6:31 pm

        I looked up a video of the Director’s Cut version after reading that, but I’m not quite sure what’s different or “more logical”: – or is this person doing it the normal way and it’s not showing the difference?
        (I’ve never played this game so I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.)

        • Sebastian Gerstl

          July 6, 2022 at 6:56 am

          They eased the timing up a little in the Director’s Cut. In the original version of the puzzle, you only had a very, very narrow opportunity to click on the required solution item (you cursor vanished during George’s knock down animation, so you had to be ready to immediately spring into action when it returned again). Since it was the only puzzle in the entire game that required such intricate timing, and basically needed you to fail first before you can succeed, many felt it was badly telegraphed and such categorized it as “bad game design”. (I remember that I apparently was very lucky on my first playthrough of the game because I had solved the puzzle almost instantly by accident, but then struggling with it on my second one years later because I couldn’t get the timing down, even though I knew what I technically needed to do…)

          In the Director’s Cut you can now click on the required item right after George’s knockdown, giving you a few very precious frames more time to get it done right.

          (Personally the thing I like most about this puzzle is that when the series was revived for a fifth installment via Kickstarter campaign, one of the announced features – I think it was a stretch goal even – was that they would also include a revised version of that infamous goat puzzle… Which they did! )

          • Jimmy Maher

            July 6, 2022 at 7:46 am

            Your anecdote makes me wonder whether there might be a timing issue with new machines that makes the puzzle more difficult than it ought to be. I played it with DOSBox set to…. let’s see. 30,000 cycles.

            I can’t call trial and error bad game design in this case, since you don’t die or lose anything through failing.

  18. Captain Kal

    July 7, 2022 at 9:13 am

    “Revolution’s days of catering to more limited machines like the Commodore Amiga were now behind them”

    OK!! That still hurts!!!!!!

  19. Alex

    July 7, 2022 at 11:21 am

    How interesting to hear about the difficulty of the goat-puzzle. I never had a problem with it. I admit, when I solved it on the Playstation for the first time, it took me a few tries, but it was nothing to get furious about. My biggest problem was also the toilet brush-puzzle in Syria, I think. It took me a while to figure out what to do exactly. Regarding the language: When you play the german version, you hear some people speaking with a “funny” french accent that doesn´t sound natural at all.

  20. Michael

    July 7, 2022 at 11:39 pm

    Not sure how those articles (or the conjunction) got in there, but even the link you provide gives the title as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail,” and not, by any means “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 8, 2022 at 5:01 am

      The title of the original British edition was The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, so that’s what I’ve gone with. It was published shortly after in the United States as Holy Blood, Holy Grail. (Another amusing coincidence with Broken Sword, come to think of it…)

  21. S

    July 18, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    In Germany, ” Baphomets Fluch” is a relativly often mentioned cult classic within the old-timer adventure games demographics.

    Before clicking on that GOG link which autotranslated it, I always thought it was a German Game, but apparently its this one! Seems it had a different name in every major market.

  22. Elise

    August 27, 2022 at 12:16 pm

    I remember reading the Da Vinci Code not long after it came out, even though it really wasn’t my sort of thing, just to find out why it was so popular (I still have no idea why; it wasn’t very good). After a few chapters I remember thinking “I bet he played Broken Sword!”

  23. Michael

    January 23, 2023 at 11:23 pm

    I just wanted to come past again to thank you for reminding me to actually READ the copy of Foucault’s Pendulum I had sitting on the shelf. Perhaps surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the literary highlights of my 2022 – apparently I sit firmly in whatever niche Eco was aiming at.

  24. tkhobbes

    September 20, 2023 at 2:25 pm

    Fun but maybe important fact: In the german version of the game – which was fully dubbed with proper voice acting – Nico was spoken by the late Franziska Pigulla ( whose voice is pretty recognizable in the german speaking part of the world for her portrayal as the german voice of Dana Scully – the X-Files were big in the nineties.

    This was one of the reasons I was playing the game through in German, even though I typically never do that as I tend to think that the original language version is the “proper” one.


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